Zara had had the Wisdom build us a rose garden. I'm not sure why, except that it had something to with some sort of gift to Yvonne. Whatever the motive, it had appeared after a day or two, perched above a dramatic and strangely earth like vista – the hills and lakes of an alien planet visible through a panoramic window of something that probably wasn't anything remotely like glass.
I'd taken to spending a lot of time up there, not least because Zara had also specified a random breeze to add – hah! – atmosphere to the place. The scientist in me had developed a secret obsession with calculating the processing power required to generate the necessary gusts and eddies, while my human side merely belatedly recognised how much I missed the subtler pleasures of life on earth. Hell, our accommodation here was comfortable – luxurious – beyond imaging, earth wise, but it was artificial – sterile – ultimately inhuman.
Well, I thought, that was certainly true: The alien product of an alien mind, designed to meet mere humans' every need but alien nonetheless. I was wondering if I could get the AI to lay on some rain showers, too – maybe even a thunder storm or two, I'd always liked a good storm – when Yvonne herself came into the 'garden'.
"Hi, Xav," she said, seeing me. "Got a message from the Big W for you – seems we have a new arrival on the way, another one of yours apparently."
I was about to ask why the AI hadn't just told me directly – it was hardly shy in the general run of things – but she anticipated the question with a knowing grin.
"I think you've got the thing a bit paranoid around you, what with the tricks you pulled in Switzerland – that or its actually taken Zara's request not to be disturbed up here seriously. Anyway, the woman's name is Queta Munoz – ex student of yours, I'm told. Seems she's going to get into trouble and the Technology thinks she's worth a look, recruitment wise."
I was surprised by the name, did indeed remember the woman – not actually a student of mine but a post doc I'd worked with, maybe would have done more with if it hadn't been for a Fatal Difficulty. But that would hardly matter here, I thought – hell it could hardly survive the shock of being here – and it was true, she had skills. I began to run through them in my head, gathering my stuff together prior to heading to our seminar room to bring Zara and Patrice up to speed, decide what we should do next. Just as I gave Yvonne the nod that I was ready, just as she turned to leave the area, I felt it: A drop of rain, then another and another in a perfect simulation of a spring shower. Somewhere in the distance, I'm sure I heard something almost like thunder...
Zara and Patrice – both looking tired but relaxed, having just returned from an 'intervention' earth-side – were sitting round the conference table when we we got down there. Both already had data feeds open, so I pulled one up myself, got a rapid update on the situation. Which was interesting: Queta – she'd made it to full professor, the bastard – was up in the Alps, in a mountain hut with a few of her colleagues and students. Seemed that this was a regular event – an annual fortnight in the hills, spent discussing ideas and future prospects. Difference was, this year the hut was going to be carried off by a mudslide, triggered by a major storm due – the Wisdom informed us – in seven hours (earth-time) from now. I checked the data behind this – just to annoy the thing, not because I, or the greatest geophysicist at 'home', had a hope of understanding the maths involved. Seemed to check out, anyway, and the AI had a pretty good track record, prediction wise, so the question was – what were we going to do about it?
Actually, the question very quickly resolved itself to be: Who were we going to save? The Wisdom, with typical pragmatism, thought we should just pull out Queta at the last moment, let the others take their chances. I could see its point, to an extent – one body missing in a mini disaster was hardly likely to attract comment, a hut being carried away without a trace of the victims ... that could spark some interest, if only on the lunatic fringe.
Needless to say, the human side of the debate didn't see the logic quite so clearly and so we argued. Could we get all of them out of the way of the event? Zara suggested engendering some sort of medical emergency to get them to evacuate, so we could save a few lives and give ourselves a bit more time to consider whether Q would actually be useful to the Project. Unfortunately, the W pointed out that the storm that would cause the problem had already been predicted and it was unlikely to that the group would venture away from the 'safety' of the place in any circumstances. I wondered about setting fire to the hut – rather bluntly forcing their hand – but apparently it was quite a storm and the Wisdom would have to intervene to such an extent, to keep such an inexperienced party alive in the open, that we'd be as well to extract the lot anyway.
So we came back to the central dilemma: Extract all six, take just one ... or leave them all and pretend we hadn't noticed in the first place?
We began to review the data we had on all the participants in Professor Munoz's meeting.
Later, Zara and I were in the living space we more or less shared, drinking wine and reviewing, yet again, the discussion. We'd decided to grab them all, of course, the Wisdom having reluctantly agreed to smear enough simulated body parts and DNA around to assuage the doubters. We still had to decide what to do with the supernumeraries – Yvonne's suggestion that we could always use some suicide bombers of our own having been met with stony silence – but that was something, I was sure, that we could resolve in time.
For the moment, the question was whether Q herself would prove to be useful – and whether she, or at least her sanity, would survive the transition.
"So," Zara said, summing up as she emptied her glass, "she's a holy-roller, a genuine, fundamentalist, born again christian. Which is why you never got your wicked way with the poor woman and why, in a nutshell, you think that the realisation that the nearest thing to a higher power hereabouts is a very, very clever bit of machinery might send her completely doohlally..."
I nodded, accepting a masterful summation, and added a thought of my own. "And, of course, there's the fact that 'hereabouts' is, in fact, an alien plant in an alien universe – not a lot of them in the bible. I think her faith is about to be rather severely tested, though whether she goes completely to pieces or does one of those weird mental back-flips that theists are so good at – well, either way, she's not going to be a lot of use."
"So why aren't we just letting her drown in a sea of mud and rock?"
"Because she has a brilliant mind, however odd her belief system, and – hell, even the Wisdom sees potential utility there, else the thing would never even have mentioned the situation in the first place."
"So," she replied mischievously, "the fact that she's also a rather striking woman has nothing at all to do with it..."
"Well, you have Yvonne to fall back on – so to speak – when I'm not around, Yvonne has Patrice when he's not pining for Wife on Earth, while I..."
She stuck her tongue out at me.
"Enough. Let's sleep on it. Or, at least, go to bed on it..."
Patrice and I did the meeting and greeting, Yvonne having chosen to put in some gym time, preparatory to her next foray earthside, and Zara having delegated herself to ... well, watch her do it.
We used a bigger than usual space for our Arrivals, still with the same reactive padding so that no-one hit any of the walls too hard, still with the same old message on the wall – not dead, not dreaming, etc. etc. – but it probably wasn't quite big enough. Well, six relatively senior academics, sitting in a mountain hut arguing one minute, then everything starts to shake, the world goes very bright and suddenly they're sliding over foam rubber and shouting at each other even more. It was an impressive range of languages, I'll say that, and with some particularly choice vocabulary in use in all of them. We waited for a while until they'd all actually become stationary – even the Wisdom can't juggle all the vectors involved in such a complex transition completely perfectly – and then we waited for a while more to see if any of them would actually stop talking.
Eventually, Patrice concluded that this wasn't going to happen anytime soon and keyed in an intercom circuit.
"Ah ... ladies and gentlemen", he began, politely enough, "if I could perhaps have your attention?"
His voice, appearing disembodied and direction-less to our guests, had the opposite effect from that intended. Shouting reinvigorated itself, direct arguments broke out and actual fights appeared a possibility. Well, OK – these guys were probably scared out of their wits and panic makes people behave strangely. Patrice tried again, rather more assertively.
"OK, people," he said, firmly. "Sit down and shut up!"
This did have an affect. Not that anyone actually sat down, but the volume of noise fell considerably until only a few angry murmurs remained. Grabbing the opportunity, he continued, asking for Professor Queta Munoz to identify herself – as if he didn't know that she was the one on her knees, praying – and for the others to stay calm.
.... There is more of this story ...